First material shipped from East Helena Slag Pile

EAST HELENA – The material atop the East Helena slag heap has been in the same spot for over 20 years. Now some of that slag is packaged for a trip across the ocean.

The teams are currently working on the former ASARCO foundry site, bringing together the first of many expeditions. Over five years, they will send around 2 million tonnes of slag to South Korea, where it will be reprocessed.


“I think this will be a great result for the environment and for the economy and community of East Helena,” said Cindy Brooks, managing director of the Montana Environmental Trust Group, which oversees ongoing cleanup efforts on the foundry site.

METG has entered into an agreement with New York-based Metallica Commodities Corp. to remove the top layer of slag. The company will then transfer it to Korea Zinc Company, which will extract the zinc and other metals from the material and then use what is left to make cement.

East Helena Foundry 1927


The slag, which usually looks like large black rocks, is a byproduct of lead production at the East Helena smelter, which operated from 1888 to 2001. Workers currently load some of the material into hundreds of heavy bags. – each carrying a Thousand Pounds. The bags are then stacked in covered wagons.

Earlier this year, Montana Rail Link built new rail liner over the slag heap. The slag will be transported by rail to Washington State, then by boat to Korea.

This process is only followed for certain initial test shipments. Next month, a crusher is expected to be installed on the slag heap. Once the slag has been crushed, it can be loaded directly into the railcars, greatly speeding up the assembly of shipments.

Foundry East Helena 1984


When the project reaches its peak, 30,000 tonnes of slag will be shipped each month from East Helena. The 2 million tonnes of material that will be removed is only a small part of the 16 million tonnes of slag, but it could halve the height of the pile.

Metallica only takes “non-smoked” slag, which still contains zinc. A zinc plant operated on the foundry site from 1927 to 1982, and most of the material in the pile was already processed there, so companies weren’t as likely to move it.

East Helena Foundry 2001


Brooks said unburned material is believed to be responsible for nearly three-quarters of selenium contamination in East Helena’s groundwater. Reducing the size of the pile will also make it easier and cheaper to style it – the last major step in the foundry site clean-up project. Finally, Metallica is paying around $ 1 a tonne for the slag – money that will go into an account to support ongoing cleanup and monitoring efforts.

“These are just good results,” said Betsy Burns, EPA project manager for the site. “I don’t know how a project gets better, actually.”

East Helena Foundry 2009


However, the job brings mixed feelings for people like Manley Stallings. He worked for ASARCO for approximately 36 years, 30 of which were at the East Helena Foundry. He was working as a production manager when the foundry closed.

East Helena Foundry 2012


Stallings says the slag heap is now part of the East Helena community.

“The people who have lived here feel comforted when they have left and come back to see him: ‘Well, here we are, home again! “, He said.

East Helena Foundry 2019


He said it was a good thing that the slag was used, but that he was sad to see one of the last visible callbacks from the foundry getting smaller.

“You kind of feel bad because you’ve lived and worked here and it’s been your home for over 30 years,” he said. “A lot of those people who worked here were second, third generation family members – and seeing their family history disappear and not continue as it has for so many generations.

East Helena Foundry 2020


Burns said they had always been interested in moving some of the slag as part of the smelter site cleanup, but that was only after the growing need for raw materials over the past year that it eventually became economically viable.

Slag shipments are expected to continue until 2025.